On the birthday of Carl Sagan

By Phil Plait | November 9, 2011 11:12 am

If Carl Sagan were still alive, he’d be 77 years old today. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been overly concerned with arbitrary time measurements, especially when based on the fickle way we define a "year", but it’s human nature to look back at such integrally-divisible dates… and Carl was very much a student of human nature.

I’ve written about him so much in the past there’s not much I can add right now, so I thought I would simply embed a video for you to watch… but which one? Where James Randi eloquently and emotionally talks about his friendship with Carl? Or the wonderful first installment of Symphony of Science using my favorite quote by Carl? Or this amazing speech about how life seeks life?

But in the end, the choice is obvious. Carl Sagan’s essay, "Pale Blue Dot", will, I think, stand the test of time, and will deservedly be considered one of the greatest passages ever written in the English language.

Happy birthday to Doctor Carl Sagan, Professor of Astronomy, scientist, skeptic, muse, and – though he may not have thought of himself this way — poet.

I’ll leave you with this, something I wrote abut Carl a while back, when asked about what his greatest legacy is:

Sagan’s insight, his gift to us, is the knowledge that we all have the ability to examine the Universe with all the power of human curiosity, and we need not retreat from the answers we find.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind

Comments (43)

  1. He was indeed a poet. We miss him a lot!

  2. Kirk Aplin

    Well picked. Thank you.

  3. hhEb09'1

    fickle? It only took them centuries to hash all that out!

  4. Regner Trampedach

    Thanks, Phil, for also taking this opportunity to celebrate Sagan.
    The local (Boulder) skeptical society, SSaSS, is also celebrating:

    When: Wednesday, Novermber 9th 7:00pm – 9:00pm
    Where: Fiske Planetarium on the CU, Boulder campus
    What: A talk by the Director of CU’s Fiske Planetarium, Dr. Douglas Duncan, about science as a candle in the dark (taken from Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World). Then, an episode of Cosmos (the one on evolution I believe.) will be shown. There will also be snacks and drinks. If you love Carl Sagan, it is the place to be on his birthday.

    Cheers, Regner

  5. Sionyn

    we remember and miss him

  6. Jeff

    Yeah,

    too bad he got sick right around his gala 60th birthday party.

    I’m about that same age and it doesn’t seem like a very long life to me. He is so right, everyday see the perspective, see the smallness of people compared to the universe; to me, my whole teaching career was about conveying the universe to the students, I refused to accept any awards, and I still think I am a speck of dust. This universe is what is grand.

  7. Eccentric & Anomalous

    Sagan is dearly missed. I really liked how you summarized his greatest legacy Phil.

  8. Kevin

    He died when I was very young, but he is greatly missed, and he has been a huge inspiration.

    Reading the passages in Cosmos where he discusses about how someone long gone may still communicate with the present through writing was a very powerful experience. His impact on this world will live on.

  9. Elmar_M

    Happy Birthday Carl!
    You are missed by a great many people!

  10. Kevin

    Here’s the passage I referenced above (from page 232 of ‘Cosmos’):

    “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person — perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”

    Very profound…it is an excellent description of my relationship with Mr. Sagan.

  11. Ron1

    I sure would have liked to have had a beer with him.

    Happy birthday, Carl.

  12. Pete Jackson

    @Kevin: Thanks for bringing us that passage!

  13. Grand Lunar

    I wish I had followed Carl’s work more closely when he was alive (to think my grandmother is older now than he would’ve been!).

    I’m grateful, though, that his work, and words, still can convey his insight, as the passage provided by Kevin shows.

    In some ways Phil, YOU represent to me what Carl probably was to yourself and others.

  14. Glen

    I miss him. He did so much for us.

  15. BJN

    I’m reading “The Demon-Haunted World”. Carl would be very sad that so much of the medieval mindset he describes is even more pervasive today. Here’s to keeping “Science as a Candle in the Dark” kindled in the hope of a more enlightened future.

  16. @ ^ BJN : Seconds and raises glass to that last sentence there.

    *****

    Carl Sagan is one of the people I admire most. ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is my favourite of all his books. That passage from it is brillaint and so absolutely spot-on true.

    This is a very fitting and true tribute to him.

    Thanks, Bad Astronomer. :-)

    *****

    “Yet here we are with our eyes and our minds and our curiosity, six+ billion passengers aboard a tiny blue boat, bobbing and wheeling our way around one vast Catherine wheel among many.”
    – P.246, Tim Ferris, ‘Seeing in the Dark’, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

  17. Wow. Fifteen years. We miss you Carl.

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    There’s a whole lot of versions of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot passage on line – see :

    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pale+blue+dot+carl+sagan+&aq=f

    for a listing.

    With this one :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sbq0WYnph0w

    accompanied with music by Sigur Ross and some superb and moving photography being my favourite out of them all – and, indeed, is probably my favourite Youtube clip of all time. :-)

    Of course, the BA’s one here is awesome too. ;-)

    Sagan’s eponymous book has a wikipage here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot_(book)

    and is one I’d very highly recommend reading in full. Then re-reading again and again too! :-)

  19. Kurt Erlenbach

    I am proud to say that I took Astronomy 102 from Prof. Sagan in the spring, 1975 semester at Cornell. One of the smartest things I ever did.

  20. Cindy

    I was fortunate to meet Carl Sagan about 6 months before he died. I told him it was “his fault” I’m an astronomer (I was in grad school then). It seemed fitting somehow that I was at Kitt Peak observing when he died. I remember lots of conversations that night about how his work influenced all of us.

    Thanks, Phil, for carrying the torch.

  21. Ditto all the above. Should not Google have celebrated with us?

  22. Naomi

    Carl Sagan is the reason I went back to school, the reason I started doing a Bachelor of Science, and the reason I’m majoring in Museum Studies – to communicate the same wonder and passion for the universe that he awakened in me. In a very, very direct way, watching Cosmos a few years ago is shaping my entire future.

  23. Ellie

    I say this every time I get an opportunity to comment on Sagan. I loved Cosmos and the love of astronomy it opened up to me, but the Demon Haunted World changed me, and spun all my conceptions on how to view the world. It righted my ship, so to speak, and not a day goes by that I am not grateful for that.

  24. jack21222

    Sagan was my inspiration to go back to school as well. I graduate next semester with a bachelor’s in physics, and I plan to go to grad school after.

  25. Eric

    I still remember cosmos (and was thrilled to find it online – believe it was netflix.)

    … what’s sad is that we have an ad for “quantum jumping” – or at least I do – showing up in the video. *sigh*

  26. Chris J

    As much as I like Sagan and Science, I find his essay to be no less arrogant or conceited than any ideology or theology. He believes astronomy’s view of this piece of dust somehow invalidates any religion.

    “No hint that help will come from elsewhere”??? The countless writings of prophets and laymen who’ve witnessed such miracles of life, should at least HINT that there might be more than is seen through a lens.

    “The delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe”? We, out of countless planets, exist as lifeforms with sentience. That could indicate at least the smallest fraction of privilege, and hardly delusional.

    Delusional is to assume that your dogma, be it religious or scientific, holds the only true view of the universe.

  27. Mike

    http://bigbangtheorytees.com/images/uploads/2/th_149eca14ada7ed555b2.jpg

    I wore this today and found it was quite popular. :) More random people knew what day it was today than I had expected.

  28. Cindy

    21 normw:

    I just submitted to google the suggestion of a doodle to commemorate Carl Sagan’s birthday.

    How about others joining in?

  29. Happy birthday to Doctor Carl Sagan, astronomer, scientist and, although you never knew me, through your books and videos you became my mentor, and a close friend.

  30. Nebogipfel

    Listening to Carl reminds me why “Cosmos” should not be remade.

    Carl had a unique insight, gravitas and poetry which has no equal.

    I like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s broadcasts, but he is not Carl Sagan.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Chris J (27) said:

    As much as I like Sagan and Science, I find his essay to be no less arrogant or conceited than any ideology or theology. He believes astronomy’s view of this piece of dust somehow invalidates any religion.

    Well, that plus the principle of parsimony.

    Interestingly, Christianity always portrayed heaven as being above us in some way. Then, when we developed instruments to look up and observe things in detail, we find that heaven is only metaphorically above us, not actually above us.

    All religions are irrational, because they demand that a person believe in something for which there is no evidence.

    “No hint that help will come from elsewhere”??? The countless writings of prophets and laymen who’ve witnessed such miracles of life, should at least HINT that there might be more than is seen through a lens.

    How? Why would human documents and human experiences count as evidence for anything beyond what they are – aspects of the human condition?

    There is no way of distinguishing a genuine (i.e. actual divinely-inspired) religious experience from a delusion. How then do you judge whether a prophet was delusional or otherwise? The answer – you cannot. The conclusion (skipping some of the reasoning for brevity) – there’s probably no god.

    “The delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe”? We, out of countless planets, exist as lifeforms with sentience.

    You cannot know this.

    We only know of the existence of about 600 exoplanets, and we conclude from our surveys of nearby stars that planets are common.

    We find that life on Earth is ubiquitous (the only places you don’t find bacteria or archaea are inside active volcanoes and inside healthy tissues), and it seems likely that life exists elsewhere. Despite the silence, there is no reason to suppose that we are the only intelligent life in the universe (after all, the barriers to interstellar travel in anything like a human time frame are immense, and the barriers to interstellar communication, while orders of magnitude less, are still huge).

    You seem to take the observation that we are the only known sentient life and extrapolate that to mean that we are the only sentient life, but you omit to consider the great difficulty of detecting sentient life in another star system.

    That could indicate at least the smallest fraction of privilege, and hardly delusional.

    Yes, it is delusional to suppose that we are the only sentient life. If we ever come up with a way whereby we could survey all the star systems in our galaxy and conclusively assess them for sentient life, and found none, then could we (very!) tentatively conclude that we alone represent sentient life. (If we are the only example of sentient life in our galaxy, then sentient life is rare indeed, especially if our survey turns up a good deal of non-sentient life. We could make some probabilistic argument about being the only sentient life in the universe, but we should never expect to be able to prove this conclusively.)

    Delusional is to assume that your dogma, be it religious or scientific, holds the only true view of the universe.

    What utter nonsense.

    Delusion is to ignore hard, physical evidence, or to draw conclusions beyond what the evidence will support.

    Science as a whole is anti-dogmatic. Nothing is fixed. All conclusions are – at least in principle – provisional. However, modern science does allow us to draw some perfectly reasonable conclusions about our extant theories of the universe. Our main scientific theories (atomic theory, evolution, QM, GR and so on) are at the very least pretty good approximations for how the universe behaves.

    Having said that, I acknowledge that many people conflate the dogmatism of some individual scientists as dogmatism within science itself. It looks like this is what you have done.

    Since it is impossible to distinguish any religious epxerience from a delusion, all we have from which to draw conclusions about the universe are evidence and reason. And a key reasoning tool is the principle of parsimony, which all religions violate.

    Having said that, just because religion is irrational does not mean that it can’t be a valid part of the human condition. After all, the greater part of being human is to be irrational.

  32. Nigel Depledge

    @ Nebogipfel (32) –
    I agree. I don’t see why they can’t simply give Neil’s show its own title.

  33. Infinite123Lifer

    I have read Contact by Carl Sagan. Tomorrow I am going to purchase some books.

    Anybody suggest a good order to read some of Carl’s work? Or at least what I should start with? I am not sure if Symphony of Science is a book, where I think Cosmos is, and Pale Blue Dot is an Essay?

    I will do the leg work. Just curious if anyone recommends an order, or a first to start with? Or maybe a hidden treasure of sorts.

    As I respect Dr. Carl Sagan immensely something tells me he would want us little guys to call him Carl.

    Seeing that surgery is around the corner I would like to get my Dr. Carl Sagan’s in a row if you will.

    Cheers

    i say that when I am drinking my nightly merlot :)

    I loved Contact. Read it in 3 days. Tears an all. What made me cry is that throughout the book I could not let go of this feeling that; here, in print are my thoughts and feelings about some things in this Life. I felt less alone reading that book for the simple reason that certain dreams and understanding and realizations I have deep inside of me. . . are not that foreign. Contact made me feel. . . more a part of this world that somebody could relate to what I feel and improve on those original feelings with a beautiful philosophical expansion.

  34. #35 Infinite:
    Cosmos was Carl’s fabulous 1980 TV series, and also the book which accompanied it. I still have my copy.
    Pale Blue Dot is both the title of an essay, and of the book which includes it.

    Phil:
    Please allow me to modify one of your statements:
    Pale Blue Dot will be rightly considered one of the greatest passages ever written in the English language, or any other language!

  35. Lone Primate

    Happy birthday, Carl. The gift you gave us, Cosmos, changed my life and who I grew up to be and how I see the world.

  36. Thaddeus

    My best comedic impression is of Carl Sagan, others say it’s “spot on”… but Sagan left a huge impression upon my perception of the universe and helped forge my deep, lifelong interest in science.

    He was gifted, and shared that gift enthusiastically.

    It doesn’t get any better than that.

  37. James Keenan

    Carl would have said, “I’ve been around the sun 77 times.” Happy Birthday to a great teacher!

  38. I was already sad, now I m sadder

  39. Jesse
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